The Open InternetMonday, December 17, 2007
First and foremost, I wish each of you a Happy Holiday Season wherever you are or whatever you are doing. I hope this year was good to you and that next year will be even better.
I keep reading about the "Open Internet"―you know, the one that lets any device connect to the Internet, access any site attached to the Internet and download any type of information? Yes, that one. You must pay for DSL or cable, FIOS or even dial-up, or perhaps you find free Wi-Fi access, but then someone else is paying for it so you will buy a second cup of coffee, thus Open Internet does not mean free.
"Any device" is limited to any device capable of being assigned an IP address and meeting requirements for IP access. Most computers, whether designed for wireless use or not, have a bios and firmware that work in concert with the processor and memory. There is no access to this code since it is designed to ensure that the device will continue to function properly and, if there is a problem caused by a program or software, the machine can be restored to its original condition. So open means I am free to choose which one from this group I want to use.
So now I have the device of my choice―well, sort of. I get to choose from a variety of computers, PDAs or Internet appliances―I have my for-pay Internet access and occasionally free Internet access.
I can access the Internet by going to any page I want, but I must go to a page to start. This is usually referred to as my home page and it is the site I have chosen, or it was chosen for me by my DSL or cable provider. Once I am there and the bits are flowing, I can steer my Internet device to any site on the Internet, go to Google and search virtually any subject to find Websites containing the information I want. I can download games (some for free) and I can download audio and video files―some I have to pay for, some that have, perhaps, been stolen from their rightful owners and made available and some from legitimate sites where I pay for what I download.
Meanwhile, my Internet device is protected by a firewall, anti-virus software, a pop-up blocker, perhaps a Bot removal program and spyware utilities. The sites I access all have firewalls in place and software to prevent intrusions by spammers or those who would launch a virus, attack the site or steal my credit card numbers and other personal information. This isn't exactly open, but I'm grateful it isn't.
We don't think about all of this when we use the Internet as a transport to take us to other services, sites and even devices that are connected to the Internet transport services. We don't think about the fact that at some point, the organization that connects my Website to this transport has to pay to do so.
Many people don't understand that the Internet is a transport system to which all manner of Websites are attached. Each site has an IP address (phone number) and this IP address is translated by servers on the network to names that end in .com, .net, etc. The Internet is truly a transport, like a voice phone line or a wireless network, and its purpose is to get us from here to there.
The care and feeding of this transport network is the responsibility of several organizations such as the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which delegates its authority to other groups such as the American Registry for Internet Numbers. Technical aspects are handled by the Internet Engineering Planning Group (IEPG) with input from regional organizations. The Internet transport system is built by companies we all know―Sprint, AT&T, Level 3, Quest, PSINet, Verio, Global Crossing and many more. They are compensated for maintaining their portions of the network and the transport they provide. When it comes to access, we find that nothing is truly free. With wireless access, we are paying for convenience, mobility and anywhere access.
If this is the model wireless operators are supposed to follow in order to be considered "open," I don't think they have very far to go.
What about the devices? On most wireless networks today, we have more choices of handsets, notebooks, PDAs, email devices and smartphones than we do when it comes to desktop computers, notebooks and PDAs designed for use on the wired Internet. Those demanding open access want more device choices and think they should be able to purchase any device to run across any network. This is fine except that in the wireless world we are dealing with different technologies deployed by different wireless network operators.
It is difficult to get an iPhone customer who is unhappy with AT&T's network and data speeds to understand that the same device will not work on Verizon's network. Yet we all should be well aware of examples involving differences in technology; they do not occur only in wireless. Today, our TV signals in North America use a different encoding scheme than the rest of the world. When we purchase our new high-resolution DVD player, we have to choose between Blu-RAY or HD-capable machines. If we buy a car in London, it will have the steering wheel on the "wrong" side for driving back home in the United States.
Our government does not dictate which technology is to be used in which portion of the spectrum. In some parts of the world, the government does, but not here. Those providing us with wireless services make their technology choices based on what they believe is the best use of their spectrum based on spectral efficiency since they only have so much available to them.
Wireless devices are being built to operate on both of the two primary technologies we use in North America (three if you count Nextel), but at the moment, they cost a little more. The prices we pay for our wireless devices today are being subsidized by the network operators. Buying devices on the open market will mean that customers will be paying full price. To bring new device prices down to a reasonable level, vendors want to build ten million, not one million. Today, when manufacturers build devices, they have orders from network operators for an initial quantity so they know what their return on investment will be. They will have to learn how to put devices into retail with no guarantees of quantities, which will mean higher prices.
I don't believe we will see a lot of new devices entering the market because of open access. There will be a few, including some Android phones. I believe major handset manufacturers and network operators will also use Android, so they should be available in both open access and network-specific models.
How open does a device have to be? Remember that even though a PC may seem to be open, it is only open from the operating system outward. Anyone who wants to build an operating system and applications to run on a PC has to follow some basic rules to work with the processor, bios and firmware. I understand that Android will follow this same logic and other mobile operating systems already do. The basic radio functions required for a device to be a "good citizen" on the network will be built to specific standards, certified in labs (as computers are today) and then the operating system and applications will be added as layers above this to assure the network operator that nothing in the radio layer of the device will cause any harm to the network.
Then there is the network itself. All wireless networks are pretty open today. I can take my notebook computer and a high-speed broadband card, sign on to the network and visit any site I want, and even download any content I want including streaming audio and video. I don't know of any limitations today except that my data speed might vary (just as it does when I use a cable modem) because the bandwidth I am using must be shared with others.
The data will flow across the network just as it does today, and the network will be connected to the Internet just as it is today, with all of the safeguards put into place by the network operators to protect their network and the devices on the network. You might consider this another layer of defense. The Internet has no built-in protection; it is up to the user and the Website provider to protect against intrusion, viruses and other harmful things. In addition to the protection on the Internet site and on the wireless device, there is a third layer of protection on the wireless network to protect the network because it must remain up and serving its customers.
I have said many times that the Internet is not a mission-critical network. While we hear stories about cell sites going down during major storms and fires, wireless networks are far more robust than many parts of the Internet. And they are managed, which means one or more network operations center is always online and always measuring traffic, determining if there are any problems, rerouting traffic and making sure all sites are up and running. The only Internet monitoring I know of is done by Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTS) run by various countries and private organizations.
Finally, there is the issue of the difference between the Internet's wired bandwidth and wireless shared bandwidth. This seems to be the most difficult concept for the open access community to fathom. When they access the Internet via a cable modem or a Wi-Fi access point in a public place, they are sharing the total available bandwidth with other users. The more customers using these shared bandwidth systems, the slower the data speeds. If a few customers start downloading streaming audio and video, they hog the bandwidth at the expense of others on the network.
I am sure that open access proponents will get very upset when they find that pricing models for wireless data will need to change to help ensure that bandwidth is available to all networks subscribers when they want it. If you network lightly most of the time using email, etc., you will pay a lower rate than if you download videos all the time. Before you say this is not fair, you need to realize that this is the same pricing model you have today with DSL or cable. In most areas, you are offered at least two different speed limits for DSL and cable and the price goes up with the speeds. In my case, DSL speeds are 786 Kbps down, 386 Kbps up or 1.5 Mbps down, 786 Kbps up. Cable offers three speed limits starting at $30 per month going up to $60.
With the exception of limited bandwidth availability, I am not sure I see many differences between the "open wired Internet" and the wireless Internet. You can purchase a computer motherboard and an Intel or AMD chip and build your own PC, but the basics are already on the board. You can also buy a wireless module from Sierra Wireless, Novatel or Kyocera that is approved for use on a network and build anything you want of top of it.
I really don't understand what all of the fuss is about. I can put a wired Internet device on another Internet (if there was one) and I can put a wireless device on another network most of the time. I have a choice of wireless networks, coverage and services but only one wired Internet. If open means more choices, then wireless is already more open than wireline.
Andrew M. Seybold